The subversive art of fantasy

The Juniper Tree by Laura Barrett

Snow White, Rose Red & The Snow Queen by Laura Barrett

From "It Doesn't Have to Be This Way" by Ursula K. Le Guin:

       "The test of fairyland [is that] you cannot imagine two and one not making three but you can easily imagine
       trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail."
       - G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

"The fantastic tale may suspend the laws of physics -- carpets fly; cats fade into invisibility, leaving only a smile -- and of probability -- the youngest of three brothers always wins the bride; the infant in the box cast upon the water survives unharmed -- but it carries its revolt against reality no further. Cinderella by Laura BarrettMathematical order is unquestioned. Two and one make three, in Koshei's castle and Alice's Wonderland (especially in Wonderland). Euclid's geometry -- or possibly Reimann's -- somebody's geometry anyhow -- governs the layout. Otherwise incoherence would invade and paralyze the narrative.

"There lies the main difference between childish imaginings and imaginative literature. The child 'telling a story' roams about among the imaginary and half-understood without knowing the difference, content with the sound of language and the pure play of fantasy to no particular end, and that's the charm of it. But fantasies, whether folktales or sophisticated literature, are stories in the adult, demanding sense. They can ignore certain laws of physics, but not causality. They start here and go there (or back here), and though the mode of travel may be unusual, and the here and there may be wildly exotic and unfamiliar places, they must both have a location on the map of that world and a relationship to the map of our world. If not, the hearer or reader of the tale will be set adrift in a sea of inconsequential inconsistencies, or, worse yet, left drowning in the shallow puddle of the author's wishful thinking.

Little Red Riding Hood & Hansel and Gretel by Laura Barrett

"It doesn't have to be the way it is. That is what fantasy says.

"It doesn't say, 'Anything goes' -- that's irresponsibility, when two and one make five, or forty-seven, or whudevva, and the story doesn't 'add up,' as we say.

"Fantasy doesn't say, 'Nothing is' -- that's nihilism. And it doesn't say, 'It ought to be this way' -- that's utopianism, a different enterprise. Fantasy isn't meliorative. The happy ending, however enjoyable to the reader, applies to the characters only; this is fiction, not prediction and not prescription.

The Frog Prince & The Bremen Town Musicians by Laura Barrett

"It doesn't have to be the way it is is a playful statement, made in the context of fiction, with no claim to 'being real.' Yet it is a subversive statement.

"Subversion doesn't suit people who, feeling their adjustment to life has been successful, want things to go on just as they are, or people who need support from authority assuring them that things are as they have to be. Fantasy not only asks 'What if things didn't go on just as they do?' but demonstrates what they might be like if they went otherwise -- thus gnawing at the very foundation of the belief that things have to be the way they are. [...]

Alice in Wonderland (a limited edition concertina book) by Laura Barrett

"Upholders and defenders of the status quo, political, social, economic, religious, or literary, may denigrate or diabolize or dismiss imaginative literature, because it is -- more than any other kind of writing -- subversive by nature. It has proved, over many centuries, a useful instrument of resistance to oppression.

Alice and the Caterpillar by Laura Barrett"Yet as Chesterton points out, fantasy stops short of nihilist violence, of destroying all the laws and burning all the boats. (Like Tolkien, Chesterton was an imaginative writer and a practicing Catholic, and thus perhaps particularly aware of tensions and boundaries.) Two and one make three. Two of the brothers fail the quest, the third carries it through. Action is met with reaction. Fate, Luck, Necessity are as inexorable in Middle-earth as in Colonus or South Dakota. The fantasy tale begins here and ends there (or back here), where the subtle and ineluctable obligations and responsibilities of narrative art have taken it. Down on the bedrock, things are as they have to be. It's only everywhere above the bedrock that nothing has to be the way it is.

"There really is nothing to fear in fantasy unless you are afraid of the freedom of uncertainty. This is why it's hard for me to imagine that anyone who likes science can dislike fantasy. Both are based so profoundly on the admission of uncertainty, the welcoming of unanswered questions. Of course the scientist seeks to ask how things are the way they are, not to imagine how they might be otherwise. But are the two operations opposed or related? We can't question reality directly, only by questioning our conventions, our beliefs, our orthodoxy, our construction of reality. All Galileo said, all Darwin said, was 'It doesn't have to be the way we thought it was.' "

The Mad Hatter's Tea Party by Laura Barrett

The magical imagery today is by Laura Barrett, an artist specialising in silhouettes and monochrome patterns. Based in South East London, she illustrates books (in both traditional and unusual forms), creates designs for a wide variety of clients, and makes animations and large-scale illustrations for graphic installations and exhibitions.

"My work is often narrative based and inspired by the darker side of folk and fairy tales," she says, "as well as traditional Scherenschnitte (paper cutting). I like to explore these themes through the use of silhouettes, which I create by drawing with a graphics tablet in Adobe Illustrator. Working digitally allows me a great deal of flexibility whilst retaining a hand crafted quality."

Visit her website & shop to see more of her work, or go here to learn more about the artist's creative process. You can also follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

Pop Up Fairy Tale Book by Laura Barrett

Pop Up Book by Laura Barrett

Fairy Tale cards by Laura Barrett

The passages above are from "It Doesn't Have to Be the Way It Is," published in No Time To Spare by Ursula K. Le Guin (Houghton Mifflin, 2017). All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.


Why we need fairy tales

Lisbeth Zwerger

From "Why We Need Fairy Tales: Jeanette Winterson on Oscar Wilde":

"Reason and logic are tools for understanding the world. We need a means of understanding ourselves, too. That is what imagination allows. When a child reads of a Nightingale who bleeds her song into a rose for love's sake, or of a Selfish Giant who puts a wall round life, or of a Fisherman who wants to be rid of his Soul, or of a statue who feels the suffering of the world more keenly than the Mathematics Master who scoffs at his pupils for dreaming about Angels, the child knows at once both the mystery and truth of such stories. We have all at some point in our lives been the overlooked idiot who finds a way to kill the dragon, win the treasure, marry the princess.

"As explanations of the world, fairy stories tell us what science and philosophy cannot and need not. There are different ways of knowing."

To read the full essay, go here.

Lisbeth Zwerger

The illustrations are by Austrian book artist Lisbeth Zwerger, for Wilde's The Canterville Ghost and The Selfish Giant. Zwerger, based in Vienna, has illustrated many exquisite volumes for children, ranging from fairy tales to classic stories by Lewis Carroll, E. Nesbith, and L. Frank Baum. She was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Medal for her contribution to children's lierature in 1990. Her work has been collected in The Art of Lisbeth Zwerger and Wonderment, both published by North-South Books.

Lisbeth Zwerger

"Fairy tales or imaginary tales by poets/writers appeal to me much more than traditional/collected tales," says the artist. "The reason for this preference is the literary language. It's not just the content, but it´s actually the specific language that draws me into a story."

Lisbeth Zwerger

The passage above is from an essay by Jeanette Winterson, published in The Guardian (October 2013).  The poem in the picture captions is from Poetry (March 2010).  All rights to the text and art above reserved by the authors and artist.


The wild, weather-ridden world

Storm 1

Storm 2

Storm 3

As Storm Diana sweeps across the country from the Shetlands down to Dartmoor, I put on my weatherproof coat and boots, follow the hound into hills...and I'm reminded of these words about weather, land, and art by Gretel Ehrlich:

"All over the world the life of rocks, ice, mountains, snow, oceans, islands, albatross, sooty gulls, whales, crabs, limpets, and guanaco once flowed up into the bodies of the people who lived in small hunting groups and villages, and out came killer-whale prayers, condor chants, crab feasts, and guanaco songs. Life went where there was food. Food occurred in places of great beauty, and the act of living directly fueled people’s movements, thoughts, and lives. Everything spoke. Everything made a sound -- birds, ghosts, animals, oceans, bogs, rocks, humans, trees, flowers, and rivers -- and when they passed each other a third sound occurred. That’s why weather, mountains, and each passing season were so noisy. Song and dance, sex and gratitude, were the season-sensitive ceremonies linking the human psyche to the larger, wild, weather-ridden world....

"When did we begin thinking that weather was something to be rescued from?"

Storm 4

"The truest art I would strive for in any work would be to give the page the same qualities as earth: weather would land on it harshly; light would elucidate the most difficult truths; wind would sweep away obtuse padding."

Storm 5

Storm 6

"I like to think of the landscape not as a fixed place but as a path that is unwinding before my eyes, under my feet. To see and know a place is a contemplative act. It means emptying our minds and letting what is there, in all its mulitplicity and endless variety, come in."

Storm 7

"Love life first, then march through the gates of each season; go inside nature and develop the discipline to stop destructive behavior; learn tenderness toward experience, then make decisions based on creating biological wealth that includes all people, animals, cultures, currencies, languages, and the living things as yet undiscovered; listen to the truth the land will tell you; act accordingly."

Storm 8

To learn more about Gretel Ehrlich (if you don't know her work already), I recommend this recently re-published interview by Stephen Foehr.

Storm 9

The Gretel Ehrlich quotes above are from "Chronicles of Ice" (Orion Magazine, 2004), Legacy of Light, edited by Robert Stone (Knopf, 1987), The Solace of Open Spaces (Viking, 1985), and The Future of Ice: A Journey Into Cold (Random House, 2004). The poem in the picture captions is from Best Scottish Poems 2012 (Scottish Poetry Library). All rights reserved by the authors.


Trailing stories

Oe'r Hill gate

From an interview with storyteller, writer, and mythographer Martin Shaw, upon being asked how to find new stories relevant to times we live in:

Joanna Concejo"First thing we gotta do is trail the stories not trap them," Martin answers. "If you trap a story, you’ve put it in a little allegorical cage where you pretend you know what it means. The moment you think you know what the story means from beginning to end, it’s lost its nutrition, it’s lost its protein, it’s lost its danger.

"Seamus Heaney, the poet, says that a poet is somebody with a tuned ear. And in a way tuning your listening to stories is a discipline. You know we are living in a world where people spend endless amounts of time in the gym, endless amounts of time toning their body, but their minds lack discipline. You know what it is: you have to let a story have its way with you. You can’t tell the story what it is. You learn to sit in the radiance of it until something comes from the story that disturbs you or bugs you or makes you happy, until you have to do something with it. But that is not the same thing as using a story to make a psychological point or to support a contemporary polemic.

Sweet sheep 1

Hound and oak leaves

"Because I’m a storyteller and a writer, people are always saying to me, 'Can you find us a story so we can make this point? We want to make a point about climate change. We want to make a point about gender. Will you send us something over that supports it?' Now that’s backwards to me. Story is first. You have to be in the presence of the story, which I regard as a living being: it’s a wild animal; it’s got tusks, udders; it’s got a tail; it doesn’t behave; half the time you want it to be there it’s disappeared, it’s shuffled off somewhere else. Stories should be filled with so much consequence and danger, they won’t behave for your polemic."

Sweet sheep 2

Oe'r Hill

"There’s no way we can’t create stories," he adds, "which are the things that really feed our bones; that’s what we’re hunkering down for. Stories bring in what is at the edge of our vision and not right at the center. So in other words, in an old myth, if there’s a crisis in the story, the remedy for the crisis always comes from the edge not the center. So when I think about the times we’re in, and I think about what is actually happening to our gaze -- what we are fundamentally staring at all the time -- I think, that’s not a mythological move. A mythological move is to be aware of all the hundred trembling secrets at the edge of your vision. Because they are the things that want to secrete their intelligence into you about the problem that’s right in front of you.

Dartmoor pony 1

"But if you think about great myth -- if you keep staring at Medusa, you get turned to ashes. And when I meet a lot of activists at the moment, I meet a lot of people utterly consumed with the seemingly horrible narrative of our times. I see a lot of burn out, because they have no shield to reflect, they have no art to reflect, the immensity of what’s right in front of them. If all you do is stare into hell, you will become ashes.

"Stories are a way, an artful way, of negotiating very difficult things in such a fashion that, in the very demonstration and articulation of those stories, more beauty works itself out into the world."

Dartmoor ponies

Following the trail home

Words: The two passages above are from "Mud and Antler Bone," the transcript of a podcast interview with Martin Shaw by Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee (Emergence Magazine). The poem in the picture captions is from Fishing for Myth by Heid E. Erdrich (New Rivers Press, 1997), whose five poetry collections I recommend. All rights reserved by the authors. Photographs: Visiting our animal neighbours on a fine autumn day. Art: The charming little drawing is by French illustrator Joanna Concejo


The magic of the in-between

Reading the Tea Leaves by Mary Alayne Thomas

 From "Notes to a Modern Storyteller" by Ben Okri:

"Our age is lost in sensational tales. Without genuine mystery, the mystery of art, a story will not linger in the imagination."

Playing for Keeps by Mary Alayne Thomas

"A fragment is more fascinating than the whole."

The Search by Mary Alayne Thomas

"The mind likes completion. If you give the mind complete stories you give it nothing to do. The Trojan War lasted twenty years. But Homer tells only of one year, one quarrel, one rage. Yet has a war haunted us more? It is a war story to which others turn, as a source."

The Mystery of the Golden Locket by Mary Alayne Thomas

"Indirection fascinates. Straight roads make the mind fall asleep. But we all love to take hidden paths, roads that bend and curve. The Renaissance artists understood the appeal of paths that wander out of view. We want to travel the untravelled road.

"We should learn to tell untold stories, stories that wander off the high roads; stories like roads untaken. This is the only cure for the despair that all the stories have been told, that there are no stories under the sun. All the high road stories have been told, but not the hidden road stories that lead to the true center."

Even the Tiger Stopped to Listen to her Tale by Mary Alayne Thomas

The imagery today is by Mary Alyne Thomas, an American artist raised in the high desert of New Mexio and now based on the North-West coast.

"My paintings are a complex layering of encaustic and silkscreen over a watercolor painting," she explains. "There is a sense of mystery, a softness that emanates from the floating art forms within the transparent, waxy surface. It creates an atmospheric work, a dreamy ethereal expression.

"I am constantly inspired by the wildlife, forests and dark beauty of my home in Portland, Oregon, but childhood memories of wandering the mesas in Santa Fe continue to compel my work. I strive to capture those magical ephemeral moments we all experience, real or imagined."

All the Clues led them to this Place by by Mary Alayne Thomas

Thomas' enigmatic paintings are perfectly suited to Okri's words on the power of mystery, for the title of each reads like the fragment of a story -- conjuring an archetypal tale that the view must imagine and complete. (Run your cursor over the pictures to read the titles. They are also listed at the bottom of the post.)

A story dwells, says Okri, "in the ambiguous place between the teller and the hearer, between the writer and reader. The greatest storytellers understand this magical fact, and use the magic of the in-between in their stories and in their telling."

I couldn't agree more.

The Librarian by Mary Alayne Thomas

Pictures: The paintings above are Mary Alayne Thomas. The titles, from top to bottom, are: Reading the Tea Leaves, Playing for Keeps, The Search, The Mystery of the Golden Locket, Even the Tiger Stopped to Listen to her Tale, All Clues Led Them to this Place, and The Librarian. All rights reserved by the artist. Words: The quotes above are are from The Mystery Feast: Thoughts on Storytelling by Ben Okri (Clairview Books, 2015). All rights reserved by the author.


Reclaiming the fire and sorcery

Dartmoor ponies 1

Dartmoor ponies 2

To end the week, here's one last passage from The Mystery Feast by Ben Okri:

"In ancient Africa, in the Celtic lands, storytellers were magicians. They were initiates. They understood the underlying nature of reality, its hidden forces. The old Celtic bards could bring out welts on the body with a string of syllables. They could heal sickness with a tale. They could breathe life into a dying civilization with the magic of a story. To a thriving civilization, they could bring transformation and the potency of myth. In the old days kings and leaders, warriors and knights listened to epic tales and drew from them courage and inspiration.

P1490742

"The historian deals with the past, but the true storyteller works with the future. You can tell the strength of an age by the imaginative truth-grasping vigour of its storytellers. Stories are matrices of thought. They are patterns formed in the mind. They weave their effect on the future. To be a storyteller is to work with, to weave with, the material of time itself.

"A nation is shaped by the stories its children are told. A nation is sustained by the stories it tells itself. The good stories can liberate its potential, or help it face the dragons of its evils.

Ponies 1

"Storytellers, reclaim the fire and sorcery of your estate. Take an interest in everything. You cannot be a magician in stories if you are not a magician in life. Go forward into the future, but also return to the secret gnosis of the bards.

P1490698

"As the world gets more confused, storytellers should become more centered. What we need in our age are not more specialists and spin-doctors. What we need are people deeply rooted in the traditions of their art, but who are also at ease in the contemporary world.

P1490713

P1490714

P1490715

"We need storytellers who weave their tales with far-seeing eyes, and multi-dimensional hearts. Not those who dabble, who turn out mere words for pay or fame.

P1490717

"Storytellers are the singing conscious of the land, the unacknowledged guides.

3

Pony

"Reclaim your power to help our age become wise again. "

P1490754

P1490756

Words: The passage above IS are from The Mystery Feast: Thoughts on Storytelling by Ben Okri (Clairview Books, 2015). The quote in the picture captions is from "The Joys of Storytelling 1," published in Ways of Being Free by Ben Okri (Phoenix House, 1997). All rights reserved by the author. Pictures: Our local herd of semi-wild Darmoor ponies, grazing on O'er Hill.

 


On stories false and true

Nattadon 1

More thoughts on the nature of story from The Mystery Feast by Ben Okri:

"As this is a celebration of storytelling, it is important to state that stories can also be pernicious. Stories have also been used for evil. They have been used for the denigration, the demonisation, and the extermination of peoples. This is because of the psychological power of stories, their ability to fit in perfectly with our belief brain cells. It is easier to get people to believe nasty things about others if you tell nasty stories about them.

"Stories, used as negative propaganda, have fuelled wars, tribal dissentions, and genocide. False stories use the same laws as good stories, making them readily acceptable to our imagination. The true danger of stories is that they tend to bypass reason. They can bypass intelligence and go straight to the subconscious. Why else have very intelligent people in the past believed such absurd things about other races? The subliminal demonisation in stories and images is one of the roots of racism and sexism. All kinds of outsiders suffer from this cruel misuse of mental association that stories can promote.

Nattadon 2

Nattadon 3

"When they want to destroy a people they begin telling stories about them. Even when negative stories about a people are not believed they still leave an imprint on the underside of the mind, a residuum of doubt, a sinister grain that in time can become an evil pus of perception. Then one day, with the insistent provocation by demagogues, a people might rise up and slaughter those who have been demonised by stories, the 'other.' The ancient Greeks did it with the Persians. The Romans with stories built Carthage into a monstrous foe which must be exterminated, and this culminated in their destruction. They did it with the Africans during the slave trade, the Jews before the Holocaust, they did it with the Tutsis, they did it with black South Africans during Apartheid, and they are doing it now to one group of people or another, and they do it through rumours in the media and with our passive collusion.

Nattadon 4

"Whenever we listed to negative stories about others we are contributing to this ongoing preparation for some unforeseen future monstrosity. Tyrants and ideologues use stories; the state uses stories when it wants to bend our inclination towards its secret programs. The Cold War was a time of toxicity of stories. Families use them to create their own myths, sometimes at the expense of other branches of the family. People use stories about their friends.

"Stories can be dangerous because they can be easily misused. The Grimm brothers made step-mothers figures of eternal suspicion. But in the original stories the Grimm brothers drew from, the people who did those terrible deeds were not the step-mothers but the mothers. The Brothers Grimm, rewriting those stories, felt they could not allow mothers to be so traduced. So they traduced step-mothers instead.

Nattadon 5

"The law of stories is immortal. Stories invariably reveal their secret truth. False stories in the end tend to evil, toward injustice, toward unfairness. Good stories tend towards clarity and transcendence.

"Good stories incline towards life, towards the raising of consciousness, a lifting of the heart. They are evolutionary. For good stories point the way upwards. This is their enigma. It is not enough to read or listen to them. We must continually meditate on them to extract their timeless wisdom, their signposts meant to guide us on the secret true path."

Nattadon 6

Nattadon 7

Nattadon 8

Words: The passage above and the quote in the picture captions are from The Mystery Feast: Thoughts on Storytelling by Ben Okri (Clairview Books, 2015). All rights reserved by the author. Pictures: Climbing to the top of Nattadon Hill on misty, drizzly autumn day -- looking out on Meldon Hill, our village, farmers' fields, and the moor beyond.


Reading, telling, awakening

The Sorceress by Alan Lee

From The Mystery Feast by Ben Okri:

"How do we awaken the imagination? One of the ways, passed down to us with cunning simplicity by our ancestors, is storytelling. But it takes many forms. A painting on a cave wall of a man pursuing a bison is a story. The frescoes of Giotta in Assisi are distilled stories. Stories are interactions between mortality and immortality. When we tell stories some immortal part of ourselves is singing in time. When we tell stories the ages awaken. When we listen to stories our future takes clearer shape. That is because fear comes from unknowing, and stories help us know a little more. The things that the heart knows shine a greater light than the things the head knows.

  Merlin by Alan Lee

"Take the story of The Odyssey, and the twenty-year adventure of trying to get home. It tells us a hundred things, and each moment of the story tells us a hundred more. Why did Odysseus answer 'Nobody' when Polyphemus asked him his name? On one level it is a cunning ruse. On another interpretative level it hints perhaps that we are someone specific and no one. In being no one he could be everybody.

Odysseus by Alan Lee

"What does the story of Penelope mean? Every night she undoes the weaving she did during the day. On one level it is a cunning act of delay, worthy of the wife of Odysseus. On another interpretative level we sense that this is what life does, what sleep does every night, what death does at the end of life.

Penelope by Alan Lee

"Take the story of Cinderella. She is the one who is ignored, who does the hard work of cleaning, while the two elder sisters get to go to the ball. Yet it is her foot that the slipper fits. On one level this is a tale of wish fulfillment. On another level it could be seen as a hint of the rewards of humility. It could also be seen as a parable about those who might inherit the earth, that it is not the showy ones, the evidently beautiful ones, or the famous ones that the true riches of the kingdom come to, but perhaps those who toil unseen. 

"Have you noticed that when someone does something astounding, publishes an important new novel, makes an invaluable scientific discovery, or creates an amazing new work of art, the press always says, 'they came from nowhere'? They didn't come from nowhere. They came from where Cinderella came from, toiling in the unglamorous back rooms of their chosen field, wherever life has led them."

Cinderella by Yvonne Gilbert

The Wicked Step-sisters by Yvonne Gilbert

Simplistic modern versions of Cinderella, focused on rags-to-riches wish fulfillment, miss the point of the story says Okri, the "acres of its possible interpretations."

It's because of the hero's "goodness of spirit, her kindliness, her toughness, her quiet initiative, because of all these things and more, which the tale only hints at, that Cinderella is the most deserving of the sisters. She earns her glory by her toil and her spirit, and not by the appropriate size of her feet. In this story her feet are merely the symbol of having walked the right path."

For more on the history of the Cinderella tale, see "Ashes, Blood, & the Slipper of Glass."

Cinderella and her Prince by Yvonne Gilbert

Flower border

Pictures: A detail from "The Sorceress,"  "Merlin," "Odysseus," and "Penelope and the Suitors" by Alan Lee; plus five Cinderella  illustrations by Yvonne Gilbert.   Words: The passage above is from The Mystery Feast: Thoughts on Storytelling by Ben Okri (Clairview Books, 2015). All rights reserved by the artists and author.


The story instinct

Mist 1

From The Mystery Feast by Ben Okri:

"There is nothing that expresses the roundedness of human beings more than storytelling. Stories are the highest technology of being.

"There is in story the greatest psychology of existence, of living. Indeed there is in story something semi-divine. The nature of story itself is linked to the core of creation. Story belongs to the micro-moment after the big bang. It belongs to the micro-moment after the 'let there be light!' act of creation.

Mist 2

Mist 3

"We live in a time in which we are being told that the main things of value are the things of science and the things of technology. Our lives are being compressed into this technological reality. But it is worth remembering the many-sidedness of being human. Great evil befalls us when we restrict ourselves to just one side of our being.

Mist 4

"It is important that we don't become machines, that we don't become computers. We contain machines. We contain computers. We contain all of nature, the seas, the mountains, the constellations, and the nearly infinite spaces.

Mist 5

Mist 6

"At the heart of all science -- its experiments, its theories, its mathematics, its discoveries, its interpretations -- is the story instinct. The scientific mind would be impossible without the story DNA, without the story-seeing brain cells. The mind's aspects do not operate in isolation. Every human being immersed in the cyclorama of reality is implicated in the cosmic story-making nature of reality. Maybe this story-making quality of reality is what constitutes the heart of our existence.

Mist 7

Mist 8

"At every moment we are in a micro or macro 'once upon a time' sea of existence. In every moment we are part of the infinite sea of stories that the universe is telling us, and that we are telling the universe.

Mist 9

"Maybe this story-making quality of being is the principle magic as well as the principle illusion of our lives."

Mist 10

Mist 11

Mist 12

Words: The passage above is from The Mystery Feast: Thoughts on Storytelling by Ben Okri (Clairview Books, 2015), a lovely small press booklet which I highly recommend. The poem in the picture captions is "Why We Tell Stories" by Lisel Mueller (Poetry magazine, July 1978), who is one of my all-time favorite poets. All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Our hill on a misty autumn morning.


The mystery of storytelling

Woodland border 1

"The mystery of storytelling," writes Ben Okri, "is the miracle of a single living seed which can populate whole acres of human minds. It is the multiplicity of responses which a single text can generate within the mind's unfailing capacity for wonder. Storytellers are a tiny representative of the greater creative forces. And like all artists they should create beauty as best they can, should serve truth, and remember humility, and when their work is done and finely crafted, arrowed to the deepest points in the reader's heart and mine, they should be silent, leave the stage, and let the imagination of the world give sanctuary."

Woodland border 2

Woodland border 3

"There are two essential joys in storytelling," Okri continues. "The joy of telling, which is to say of the artistic discovery. And the joy of listening, which is to say of the imaginative identification. Both joys are magical and important. The first involves exploration and suffering and love. The second involves silence and openness and thought. The first is the joy of giving. The second is the joy of receiving. My prayer is to be able to write stories that, to paraphrase T.S. Elliot, can be read so deeply that they are not read at all, but you become the story, while the story lasts. With the greatest writers, you continue to become more of the story long after you have finished it."

Notebooks

''Storytellers ought not to be too tame. They ought to be wild creatures who function adequately in society. They are best in disguise. If they lose all their wildness, they cannot give us the truest joys.''

Stay wild, my friends.

Woodland Border 4

Ben Okri

This post is reprinting from the Myth & Moor archives, first published in 2015. The passages quoted above and in the picture captions are from Ben Okri's "The Joys of Storytelling 1"  and "The Joys of Storytelling 2"  from Okri's essay collection A Way of Being Free (Phoenix House, 1977). All rights reserved by the author.